Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home

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Prostheses (pross-thee-sees) are man-made substitutes for missing body parts. (“Prostheses” refers to more than one; just one is called a prosthesis, pronounced pross-thee-sis.) Sometimes, parts of the body must be removed if they contain cancer that could grow and spread. Prostheses are used to help a person look as though the body part had never been removed, and to help the person function as naturally as possible.

There are many different types of prostheses. Some are external (worn on the outside) and can be put on and taken off, and others are implanted during surgery. Those most commonly needed by people with cancer are prostheses for the breast, leg, or testicles and penile implants. Wigs used to cover the short-term hair loss that may happen with some kinds of chemo can also be considered prostheses. (See the section called “Hair loss.”)

What the patient can do

  • Before surgery, ask your doctor about prostheses.
  • Find out if you might need a prosthesis. If so, ask if the prosthesis can be placed or implanted during surgery. (Prostheses for testicles, breasts, and some limbs may be implanted during the first surgery.)
  • Make sure that you get a prescription for the prosthesis from your doctor, because it may be covered by medical insurance (this includes wigs).

Breast prostheses

  • Contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society Reach To Recovery® program, a support group for women with breast cancer, for information and ideas.
  • Wear a breast form (external prosthesis) while waiting for reconstructive surgery.
  • Small prostheses (“equalizers”) are available for women who have had part of a breast removed (through breast-conserving surgery or a segmental mastectomy).
  • Nipple prostheses are available for breast reconstruction when the nipple can’t be saved. External nipple prostheses are also sold to cover flat or missing nipples.
  • External prostheses are sold in surgical supply stores, lingerie shops, and in the lingerie departments of many department stores. Call before you go to make sure that a professional fitter will be there.
  • Wear a form-fitting top when you shop for a prosthesis, so that you can better see how it looks when you move.
  • Have your partner or a good friend go with you.
  • Try many different types. Prostheses vary in shape, weight, and consistency. Custom-made forms are also available.
  • Shop around; find the best fit and the right price.
  • Prostheses may feel heavy, but they should feel comfortable, show natural contour and consistency, and stay in place when you move.
  • Ask if the prosthesis absorbs perspiration and how to care for it.
  • Talk about your feelings about reconstructive surgery and the changes in your body.
  • See the section called “Sexuality” for more information.

Leg or limb prostheses

  • Before surgery, ask about your options, including when and how your prosthesis will be fitted.
  • Often, a temporary leg prosthesis is fitted during the first surgery. Put your weight on it as advised by your doctor or physical therapist. The permanent prosthesis can be fitted after you are stronger.
  • Cosmetic, non-functional (non-working) limbs are available for people who cannot use a permanent prosthesis.
  • Ask questions about how to care for the surgical site and the prosthesis. If you are uncomfortable, or have redness or blisters, talk with your doctor. If the prosthesis needs to be adjusted, take it back to a professional rather than trying to do it yourself.

Testicular prostheses

  • A testicle-shaped form can be put in the scrotum during surgery or at a later date.
  • Not all men want or feel that they need a testicular prosthesis. Discuss the possibility of a prosthesis with your partner.
  • Before surgery, talk with your doctor about whether you want testicular prostheses.
  • See the section called “Sexuality” for more information.

Penile implants

  • Penile implants or prostheses are placed 6 to 12 months after surgery.
  • Different types are available. Discuss options and what type is best for you with your partner and your doctor. See the section called “Sexuality” for more information.

Call the doctor if the patient:

  • Develops redness, swelling, pain, pus, or drainage at the prosthesis site

Last Medical Review: 11/05/2013
Last Revised: 11/05/2013